PSG must beat Nantes to end Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore talk
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain will return to Ligue 1 action for the first time in 2018 when they take on Nantes at Stade de la Beaujoire on Sunday.
Claudio Ranieri's men away are not the easiest opponents for a return to duty in Le Championnat, but at the same time, PSG could still have faced tougher road trips. That said, Unai Emery's side have already traveled to Rennes in the Coupe de France and Amiens in the Coupe de la Ligue this new year, winning both times, so they are in good shape ahead of the return of action in France's top flight.
Once again, as was the case pre-Rennes and pre-Amiens, much of the talk surrounding the Ligue 1 leaders has focused on the Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore situation -- especially since captain Thiago Silva weighed in on the Argentina international's future only to be contradicted by "El Flaco." Sporting director Antero Henrique has also had his say on the Cavani-Pastore issue, leaving coach Emery to face questions about their possible involvement against Nantes during his pre-match news conference on Friday.
"We are preparing for the Nantes match with a full squad," said Emery to journalists at Camp des Loges. "Edinson and Javier will re-join the rest of the group when they have caught up on the training days they missed."
The Cavani-Pastore episode has lasted since 2018 began needs to be solved or consigned to history. If PSG can beat Nantes this weekend, then the issue should clearly be left alone because, with or without the duo, Les Parisiens can beat the likes of Rennes, Amiens and Les Canaris with minimal fuss; it's just a regular distraction between matches at this point.
Cavani is in Emery's 19-man squad, but Pastore is not, and regardless of how much the Uruguay international features on Sunday -- probably significantly with Neymar now out -- a line needs to be drawn under the situation.
Dijon, Guingamp, Montpellier, Rennes (again -- this time in the Coupe de la Ligue), Lille and Toulouse will instil little concern in PSG ahead of their Champions League showdown with Real Madrid, which starts next month.
As Emery put it during his pre-match news conference, "We know who wants to destabilise us," in reference to the Spanish press' attempts to apply some pressure before the clash at Santiago Bernabeu. But at this moment in time, the destabilisation relating to Cavani and Pastore is coming from within.
Silva's words in Amiens were ill-considered, and Pastore's contradiction of his captain is hardly convincing, not good for squad chemistry either.
PSG need to focus on Nantes because although they thumped Ranieri's men 4-1 at Parc des Princes back in November, there was a significant element of fortune in that heavy victory and a sterner test is likely in Pays de la Loire on Sunday.
Emery was full of praise for his Italian opposite number ahead of the game and pointed out how tricky it is coming up against such a well-organised side.
"Claudio is a reference for all coaches," said Emery. "He has a lot of experience and has coached a lot of great clubs -- he achieved incredible things with Leicester.
"It is a great honour for Ligue 1 to have him in Nantes, they are a very tough team to play against. They will play with a lot of desire and in front of their supporters at home."
Regardless of how heavily Cavani features, Emery will likely stick with the players he has used in Rennes and Amiens so far -- at least from the start -- as much as possible. That means a probable third consecutive start of 2018 for Yuri Berchiche at left-back, while Layvin Kurzawa continues to work his way back to fitness after his start to the new year was disturbed by untimely illness.
"Layvin felt sick just after the winter break," Emery explained. "He is lacking a bit of training, so I opted for Yuri as a solution. There is a healthy competition between the two of them.
"I have every confidence in Layvin. He needs to get fully fit again in order to be able to give his best out on the pitch."
PSG look more balanced in defence with Berchiche involved, meaning Kurzawa's continued absence from the starting XI is not exactly a bad thing, but Neymar's absence was unexpected and will require some reorganisation in attack. The whole team will need to do much better than they did in Amiens, though, with right back Thomas Meunier -- who will likely be replaced by Dani Alves in Nantes -- describing the performance as "drunken."
Perhaps the return of Cavani and his much-needed passion will give his teammates the kick they were missing in Amiens as "El Matador" continues to close on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's record as all-time PSG top scorer.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.